On Motherhood and Mother Earth-hood: Ecological Constructs in ‘A Mercy’ and ‘Silent Spring’
Environmentally conscious writing can depict gender constructions in so many different ways depending upon what point the author tries to make. For instance, in Silent Spring, Rachel Carson focuses on how the environment impacts women much more than men. In Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, the environment acts as a symbol and a metaphor for many different aspects of womanhood and motherhood throughout the novel. Perhaps these authors chose to focus on women so explicitly because, due to the fact that women carry children and are often the primary caretakers, the state of the environment and environmental concerns affect most women more than most men. Motherhood brings about an entirely new set of environmental issues for women that Morrison and Carson are careful not to overlook.
In the article “The Place of Women in Polluted Places,” author Lin Nelson sets up a valid argument about motherhood’s importance in terms of those who become most concerned about the environment. At this point in time, it may seem obvious that environmental health and women’s health are inextricably linked. For instance, Nelson elucidates that, “there are many poorly researched, unanswered questions regarding the impact of environmental contamination on breast cancer, reproductive health, neurological functioning, and allergic diseases” (Nelson 176). While Nelson makes a great point about women’s health over all, she goes on to focus on the “reproductive health” aspect of environmental concern, and the ways in which motherhood and the state of the environment are connected. Later in her article, Nelson explains how, “one of the most sobering aspects of the ecological degradation we endure is the impact on our capacity to bear healthy children” (Nelson 177). Because women are the gender who carries children throughout pregnancy, women have to make many choices about where they spend their time in the environment the moment they know that they will become a mother nine months down the road. Nelson refers to motherhood as a “sobering” aspect of “ecological degradation” because once someone becomes pregnant it all seems clear: she now needs to protect the environment and be wary of environmental issues not only for herself, but for her children as well. It can be easy to disregard one’s own safety, but it becomes more difficult to be willfully ignorant about the safety of loved ones, especially one’s own children.
From pregnancy to raising kids, Rachel Carson covers all the bases as to why mothers should be especially environmentally concerned. As a woman, Carson’s words in Silent Spring focus primarily on women’s issues, which naturally includes issues of rearing children. Carson’s narrative has a unique scientific lense to it that many authors cannot achieve while keeping an interested and keen audience. However, Rachel Carson has such relatable subject matter that people – especially mothers – keep reading. For instance, Carson writes in length about the scientific fact that, “children are more susceptible to poisoning than adults” (Carson 21). This fact brings a mother’s environmental consciousness into a new plane of importance because as a mother, one has more to worry about in terms of the environment’s health and future than just themselves. Therefore, if children are even “more susceptible to poisoning than adults,” mothers will immediately take extra caution to avoid environmental poison for their children. However, as Carson points out in Silent Spring, poison is so much more present than one would think, especially as humans continue to pollute the environment with chemicals that, for some absurd reason, are often still legal in America.
After mothers realize that their children were exposed to certain environmental toxins that are not known to the public, a natural rage occurs. In terms of the overwhelming hormones in milk, one mother asks, “why were not special precautions taken to protect our children who drank milk from local dairies?” (Carson 91). Women with children tend to take every precaution to keep their children safe, but this proves impossible when people in control of companies such as large scale producers of dairy products keep their product’s dangers a secret. While mothers could feel disproportionately guilty about their choices, many tend to become environmental activists, because these environmental problems suddenly feel very close to home. This happens again because suddenly, the mothers themselves are not the ones being hurt, but rather those more important than themselves: their children.
One mother who had so many children wronged by environmental factors is Rebekka in Toni Morrison’s novel, A Mercy. Rebekka has a handful of children, and they all die before they even reach their preteen years. Morrison does a great job of matching the novel’s perspective to that of Rebekka’s. Children do not just drop dead for no reason, so Morrison lets one assume that the environment these children were raised in played a role in their death. She does this through weaving nature imagery into the entire narrative about Rebekka’s children’s deaths specifically. For instance, Rebekka refers to her daughter, “Patrician’s accident [as caused] by a cloven hoof” (Morrison 94). Morrison could have written this child’s death in any way. Kids die from household accidents such as falling down the stairs all the time. However, Toni Morrison made a crafty choice and decided to have a “hoof,” part of an animal, part of nature, kill Patrician. This is no coincidence. Morrison actively wanted nature to be the murderer here, because although A Mercy takes place in a time closer to the Civil War than present day, Morrison is an environmentalist who wants to make the point that not taking care of nature affects mothers.
Morrison goes on to weave environmental imagery into Rebekka’s story to further her point. She uses snow as a common image to depict the coldness and cruelness of Mother Nature when she feels scorned. For instance, after Patrician passes away, Rebekka says to Lina, “I chastised her for a torn shift, Lina, and the next thing I know she is lying in the snow. Her little head cracked like an egg” (Morrison 92). The word “snow” has a lot of different connotations to it. Snow stops everyone in their tracks, the world stops for a day when there is too much snow. Snow is still, more peaceful than rain. Snow is cold and unwelcoming. Snow isolates people in their homes. Perhaps these connotations are why Morrison chose this natural event to surround death. They suggest that nature has the power to emotionally inhibit mothers. Morrison continues to reference snow in this way when she writes that, “at dawn, in a light snowfall, Lina came and arranged jewelry and food on the grave … telling her that the boys and Patrician were stars now, or something equally lovely: yellow and green birds, playful foxes, or the rose-tinted clouds” (Morrison 93). In this quotation, Lina suggests that the environment can be good too, once one has control over it. She suggests that if Rebekka’s children are now part of the environment as “foxes or the rose-tinted clouds,” they can be at peace with it, and nature will no longer hurt them because they are nature.
Morrison, Carson, and Nelson agree that the environment can wreak havoc on mothers when left to its own devices. Nelson and Carson acknowledge this from a biological standpoint, while Morrison turns it into a metaphor suitable to her novel’s plotline. Due to the added consequences for mothers, Nelson, Carson, and Morrison prove that mothers have added reason to be concerned about the state of the Earth’s climate. Perhaps that is one of the many reasons why Earth has always been associated with women.
We’re All in This Together: The Importance of Community as Demonstrated by Sorrow in ‘A Mercy’
In the stereotypical high school hierarchy, jocks always reign over the band kids, theater geeks, and math geniuses. These athletic students separate themselves from the others, and as this occurs, the geeks, nerds and other social pariahs must choose between two options: to remain alone, or to seek the support of others. In general, those who select the former are bullied—so most choose the latter choice. A similar situation arises in A Mercy. Sorrow, a mixed character, finds herself estranged from her black, native, and white counterparts. Rather than going it alone, she takes on the world with Twin, and later her daughter, by her side and survives in a hostile post-colonial America. By including Sorrow in the narrative, then, Morrison exemplifies the importance of community in increasingly alienated populations.
Communities help people maintain their sense of identity, just as Twin and her baby do for Sorrow. After she washes ashore, Sorrow begins her new life in the sawyer’s house, where the housewife names her Sorrow. Although Morrison notes that Sorrow had a different name on the ship, she also mentions that “she did not mind when they called her Sorrow so long as Twin kept using her real name” (116). The Oxford English Dictionary defines a name as “a word or phrase constituting the individual designation by which a particular person or thing is known, referred to, or addressed.” By giving Sorrow a different name, the housewife attempts to alter how Sorrow “is known, referred to, or addressed”—her identity. Sorrow preserves the identity she knows, however, by keeping her birth name a secret. Only Twin, her community, refers to Sorrow using her real name; only her community can remind her of her true self. Later, when Twin disappears, Sorrow finds a new community in her baby. When the Vaark farm begins to fall apart, Sorrow turns her attention completely to her newborn: “She had looked into her daughter’s eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea while a ship sailed by-the-lee” (134). As Lina, Mistress, and Sorrow drift away from each other, Sorrow risks losing her sense of self, like many do in times of chaos and confusion. However, unlike the ties that held the farm together, Sorrow’s identity does not disappear. When she looks into her baby’s eyes, she sees “the gray glisten of a winter sea” and “a ship,” elements reminiscent of her early days on the water. By reminding Sorrow of her own beginnings, the baby helps Sorrow regain that sense of self—especially in a world that spins out of control.
Throughout the novel, Twin looks out for Sorrow, demonstrating how communities, likewise, protect the individual. When Sorrow regains consciousness after the shipwreck, “they asked her name, [and] Twin whispered NO, so she shrugged her shoulders and found that a convenient gesture for the other information she could not or pretended not to remember” (118). As mentioned previously, a name represents identity. By warning Sorrow against sharing that part of herself, Twin prevents the sawyer’s wife from taking ownership of Sorrow’s identity. Thus, Twin protects Sorrow’s identity from transformation. Twin not only defends Sorrow’s identity; she also shields Sorrow from her fatal flaw. Later, Sorrow, living in the Vaark household, sees Lina checking the jars of food. She assumes the best, but Twin convinces her otherwise: “Checking the stores, thought Sorrow. No, said Twin, checking you for food theft” (122). Throughout the novel, others take advantage of Sorrow due to her naivety—one of her biggest weaknesses. Twin compensates for this innocence by providing a more realistic and more cautious viewpoint. In this, she teaches Sorrow to take everything at face value and protects Sorrow from her own naivety. Finally, Morrison maintains that communities equate with survival. In a hallucination that she has after she receives treatment for her boils, Sorrow explores her past: “Peeking here, listening here, finding nothing except a bonnet and seagulls pecking the remains of a colt” (126). By including the “seagulls pecking the remains of a colt,” Morrison depicts how people cannot survive on their own. She portrays seagulls, a plural noun, pecking at a dead colt, singular—the group triumphing over the individual. Thus, while people in a community can survive, those who go it alone cannot; therefore, communities protect its members from demise.
Twin stays with Sorrow through thick and thin; when life hits its lowest point, communities provide hope and support. Sorrow’s time in America proves difficult from the start. After the shipwreck, she finds it difficult to step onto land because it “was as foreign to her as ocean was to sheep. Twin made it possible” (126). Using the analogy to sheep, innocent and naïve like Sorrow, Morrison illustrates how frighteningly alien the New World seems to her. Likely traumatized from losing the ship and everyone on it, Sorrow initially fears what she sees a place completely opposite of where she came from. Despite these fears, she steps onto land with the help of Twin. Put simply, Twin provides the support Sorrow needs to conquer her fears. Shortly after this episode, Sorrow wakes up in the sawyer’s house and believes she has died: “That was good news, because Sorrow thought she was [dead] until Twin appeared at the foot of the pallet, grinning, holding her face in her hands” (119). In this instance, Twin takes Sorrow out of a dark place, what many see as the ultimate low—death. Not only does Twin provide reassurance, her presence convincing Sorrow that she is alive, but she also brings hope. For Sorrow, Twin’s presence presents itself as “good news” in dismal times: hope in the dark. Sorrow experiences another low point in her life when her first baby dies. In the aftermath of her child’s death, “Sorrow wept, but Twin told her not to…With no one to talk to, she relied on Twin more and more” (123). As she tells Sorrow not to cry, Twin placates Sorrow and provides moral support. Furthermore, Morrison indicates that Sorrow “relie[s] on Twin more and more.” The author’s repetition of “more” twice illustrates Sorrow’s increasing dependence on Twin after an emotional ordeal. As a result, Twin serves as a crutch—an emotional support.
Morrison’s emphasis on community through Sorrow’s character not only depicts the low status of mixed people in America, but it also reveals the origin story of Twin. Sorrow needs community because of her low position in the social hierarchy. A hybrid, Sorrow cannot fit in with the whites, natives, or blacks; Rebekka, Lina, and Florens all alienate her. Because she doesn’t have other people to turn to, Sorrow must improvise, so she decides to form a group of her own—a mixed one. To create this mixed community, Sorrow imagines Twin, a mirror image of Sorrow. She looks exactly like Sorrow for one obvious reason: the only mixed person Sorrow knows is herself.